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Volunteer coaches have sovereign immunity

Volunteer coaches conducting a high school baseball team’s batting practice have sovereign immunity from the simple negligence claims in plaintiffs’ lawsuit.

Immunity analysis

Code § 2.2-3605 provides sovereign immunity to volunteers to the same extent as paid staff. Whether the volunteer defendants in this case qualify for such immunity is determined under the four-factor test in Messina v. Burden, 228 Va. Cir. 301 (1984).

The first Messina factor is the nature of the function performed by the employee. The volunteer defendants were part of the school’s baseball coaching staff and were engaged in instructional activities in the same manner as a teacher supervising a physical education class.

The second factor is the extent of the state’s interest and involvement in the function. The third factor, the degree of the state’s control over, and direction of, the employee. There is no dispute that state law gives the county school board the authority to fund and operate physical education programs and extracurricular activities such as a baseball team, thus satisfying the second and third factors.

The fourth factor concerns whether the complained-of act involved the use of judgment and discretion. The Virginia Supreme Court has previously ruled that a teacher’s supervision and control of a physical education class, which includes selecting equipment and the students’ attire, “clearly involves, at least in part, the exercise of discretion and judgment by the teacher.” This extends to baseball coaches helping students improve their batting skills.

Defendants are entitled to sovereign immunity, which protects them from plaintiffs’ simple negligence claims. Those claims will be dismissed. Plaintiffs’ gross negligence claims survive the defendants’ plea of sovereign immunity.

Gaines, et al. v. Reed, et al. CL-16-559, Oct. 3, 2019; Richmond Cir. Ct. (Marchant). Mark C. Nanavati, G. Christopher Jones, C. James Williams III for the parties. VLW 019-8-085, 6 pp.

VLW 019-8-085

Virginia Lawyers Weekly